I stood on the beach of a swampy lagoon as fifteen alligators swam towards me, their powerful tails swishing through to water to propel them forward like heat-seeking missiles- or in this case, meat-seeking. My 6-foot guide, gator-expert and trainer stood ready and alert at my side, wielding an over-sized walking stick that resembled Gandalf’s staff- worthy enough to keep even the Orcs of Mordor at bay.
One by one, the 12-14 foot gators slid onto the beach, their feet thrusting their huge armored plated bodies forward across the surface of sand and crushed shells. A row of giant jaws parted in anticipation, revealing rows of gleaming sharp teeth…
Visiting Orlando’s Gatorland®
The moment you walk through the giant alligator mouth at the entrance, you know Gatorland is not your average Orlando theme park. Located just minutes away from Walt Disney World, Gatorland is in a league of it’s own.
This unique family owned and operated park has been running since 1949 when Owen Godwin opened it as a roadside attraction for visitors to Florida. Through the years Gatorland has expanded from an alligator pond curiosity to a 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve and it has blossomed into a leader of conservation and education.
Gatorland Helps to Make Gators Great Again: An Endangered Species Success Story
American alligators can trace their ancestry back 37 million years. They are on the top of the food chain. But due to over-hunting and the popularity of alligator-hide goods, they came close to extinction and were officially listed as an endangered species in 1973.
Along with running their own breeding program, Gatorland presented researchers at the University of Florida with funding to study alligator reproduction in the wild. The results from those studies helped to recover the wild population of American alligators. In 1987 the American alligator was removed from the endangered species list- making it one of the first success stories for endangered species.
But What Are Alligators Good For?
An apex predator, alligators play an important part in the natural ecosystem. They maintain balance in wildlife populations. If you visit the bird rookery at Gatorland, you’ll notice nests in the trees over the water, and some gators lingering beneath them. Birds build their nests over the water not to provide food for the gators, (though it does happen) but to keep predators like raccoons and opossums from stealing their eggs. A symbiosis of species.
Alligators control their own population in the wild. Young hatchlings are often eaten by larger gators. Older, larger males in the wild are territorial and will drive off the younger males or fight to the death.
Alligators are also the only known predator of the invasive Burmese Python, a non-native species that has gained a stronghold in the Everglades National Park in South Florida. The Burmese Pythons have wrecked havoc, decimating the Everglades wildlife population. Both apex predators, the native american alligator and invasive python are currently battling it out in the wild and making headlines as a result.
Learn All About American Alligators at Orlando’s Gatorland
The best way to learn about something is hands-on learning, but you should never ever approach an alligator in the wild- whether it’s on land or in the water. It’s illegal to feed an alligator in the state of Florida, and it’s also extremely dangerous. That piece of sandwich you’re thinking of tossing in a wild gator’s mouth may be the demise of a human further down the road. Alligators don’t have a taste for people, but gators in the wild who are fed lose their natural fear of humans and will come to view people as a source for food.
If you want to learn more, Gatorland offers the perfect opportunities to sate your curiosity while keeping you and the alligators safe. It is rare that you’ll see an 8-foot gator in the wild, but Gatorland has a natural lagoon breeding marsh with 130 alligators, many over 10-12 feet long. Take the boardwalk around the breeding marsh lagoon or climb the observation tower for a birds-eye view of American alligators in a natural habitat.
In the wild, only 10 alligator hatchlings (from a nest of 32-38 eggs) will survive up to their first year. Find out how small baby gators can be at the Baby Gator Marsh.
Discover just how high an huge gator can jump at the Jumparoo Show. (It is definitely an eye-opener!)
The swish of an alligator’s tail is how a gator swims- and they can reach speeds up to 20 mph in the water (yes, you will never out-swim a gator). You can see the internal workings in their alligator skeleton exhibit display.
There are alligator ponds, alligator snacks (for you to eat) at the Pearl’s Smokehouse, and even a zipline adventure across the breeding lagoon and around the park.
And if you find the need to get even more up close and personal- there’s the Gatorland Trainer for a Day program, a behind the scenes interactive tour.
The Trainer For A Day Program at Florida’s Gatorland
You know any tour that starts with ‘meet at the gator’s mouth’ is destined to be a winner and the Trainer for a Day program at Gatorland was guaranteed to be a unique experience. If you ever wanted to work with animals or gain in depth knowledge of alligators and more exotic species, then this special behind-the scenes program is for you.
You must be 12 years or older to participate in the Trainer for a Day program at Gatorland. Also, you must purchase your tickets 24-hours in advance. The group is limited to 1 to 5 people. This program lasts two-hours. Your program fee includes admission to the Gatorland Park for that day.
Okay, true confession time! Up to a few months ago- I was a gator-phobe. If someone had told me I’d be in a breeding marsh feeding 14-foot gators, I would have thought them insane. Since I was a little kid and we moved to Florida from the north, I had a gator-phobia fueled by dreams about pits filled with alligators- usually with me on a rickety bridge above them. Other kids my age were afraid of things in their closets or under their bed, but my fear had gleaming white teeth, a powerful jaw and dark scaly skin. My gator- phobia followed me into adulthood.
And then I went Gatorland.
Becoming a Trainer for a Day at Gatorland
My guide and Gator Expert & Trainer, Brandon Fisher, greeted me with a baby alligator and the mom in me melted. All babies are adorable and gators are no exception.
I held the tiny alligator while he told me about the precarious life of a baby alligator. From a wild nest, less than 1/3 of baby alligators survive to adulthood. While he spoke, a white film swept across the baby gator’s eyes- right to left. Alligators have two sets of eyelids. One is a thin film that protects their eyes when they are swimming, like a diver’s mask. It’s really weird to see up-close.
From there we headed to the White Gator Swamp for a behind the scenes look at some of the world’s most unusual alligators.
Behind the Scenes with Rare Leucistic Alligator
I stood at the door as Brandon entered the enclosure of Trezo Je, a 30-year old 11 1/2 foot white alligator in the White Gator Swamp Exhibit. I actually captured it in my photos as this 650 lb alligator acted like a happy dog with my gator expert guide as he fed him (watch the video to see it!).
Leucistic gators are a mutated variation of albino alligators, and unlike the albino alligators, who have white eyes, leucistic gators usually have blue eyes. Although more at home in a Louisiana bayou, leucistic alligators do not survive for long in the wild. Their bright coloring makes them a target for predators from birth.
There is said to be only 11 of these rare gators in the world, but with past successes of bringing endangered species back from extinction, Gatorland has set its sights on breeding their leucistic alligators. They have recently had success in hatching 3 albino alligators (and they are so adorable!)
With some coaching (for me, not the alligator), I entered the enclosure for a photograph with Trezo Je- my first close-up encounter with an alligator over double my size.
Chester: The Gatorland Alligator Rescue Story
Brandon unlocked the next exhibit door, the name ‘Chester’ marked the nameplate like a star’s door on a Hollywood movie set. Chester was a nuisance alligator from Tampa who had a penchant for eating neighborhood dogs. The call was put in to end Chester’s dog-days and Gatorland swooped in like a super-hero, saving Chester from the meat factory. The majority of large alligators reported to the FWC nuisance hotline are trapped and killed- many harvested for meat.
This former bad-boy has become an important part of the Trainer for a Day program at Gatorland. And he’s a real movie star- his vocals were used in one of The Hobbit movies as the bellow of the dragon Smaug in The Desolation of Smaug.
Chester was lazing in his pond as I entered the enclosure with my guide. Whereas Trezo Je seemed happy, Chester was aware. At 13.5-feet and weighing over 1,000 lbs, this alligator had little to fear in life. He is believed to be one of the largest alligators at Gatorland– though there is often debate on the matter.
Brandon brandished a bright red plastic bucket filled with meat. I noticed that not only Chester, but all the other gators looked alert when they saw the feed bucket.
Using hunks of meat for Chester to chomp, Brandon demonstrated how powerful the jaws of an alligator really are. The bibulous fat at their neck is really all muscle, and gators use it to crush their prey. Turtles are among their food sources in the wild, and they use their strong jaw muscles to crush the turtle shells- another really good reason to give alligators respect- and wide berth.
The Grande Finale: Feeding Time in the Breeding Marsh
My tour encompassed many aspects of the Gatorland Park, but the pinnacle came when we entered the small beach at the Alligator Breeding Marsh Lagoon. With Brandon and red bucket on the beach, a wave of ginormous alligators headed for us. In a lagoon of 130, only 30 were males, and they were huge.
The female alligators don’t get as big as the males, but one had just created a nest nearby, making her ‘territorial’, and Brandon kept a watch out for her. I was told that they would safely remove the eggs from the nest as soon as they could to hatch in the nursery to ensure a greater survival rate.
Alligator mating season in Florida begins in April, with wooing- song & dance, and the actual mating in May /June. Alligators become more active during the mating season and can become aggressive as they fight for their ‘female’ among their rivals. Eggs are laid and hatch out around the middle of August & September.
Brandon called the approaching alligators by name. They have different personalities, just like people. The armored plated reptiles gathered on the beach in front of us- millions of years of ancestry behind them and a living testament to a prehistoric species survival.
All gator eyes focused with anticipation on the bright red bucket filled with raw meat. With a gloved hand, I lifted a hunk of beef from the bucket. I swear, every gator-eye in the lagoon followed that meat as I pitched it towards the waiting reptilian mouths. For such wide mouths, my aim was off and a hunk of meat landed with a thud on Buster’s head. I pitched a second. It landed on the gator next to him. My third made it- spot on, into his waiting jaws. Brandon laughed. “Kobe in the house!”
It was just another lunch time in the alligator breeding marsh at Orlando’s Gatorland.
And my gator-phobia? Although I suspect working with alligators is not in my future as a full time occupation, I did not freeze-up the last time an alligator crossed my path on my paddle adventures in the wild. Fear-faced! I’m looking forward to returning to Gatorland- I have an Indiana Jones-type snake-fear I need to tackle 😉
Things To Know If You Go:
- Gatorland is located at 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando, Florida
- Contact: 407.855.5496
- Hours: 10AM – 5PM; You can purchase photography passes for earlier/later admission.
- Fees: (2019) Adult (13+): $29.99; Children (3-12) $19.99; Senior admission available. They also offer many special offers throughout the year (even a 50% off for Florida residents at certain times- woohoo- that’s a big win!) So check their website for deals before you go.
- Parking is free.
- Trainer for the Day program is $129.99 (check website for discounts) and only good for ages 12 and up. Park admission is included in ticket price. Tickets must be purchased at least 24-hours in advance. Tour is 2-hours long. Tip: Practice tossing a ball (underhand) into a smallish bucket at home beforehand to feed the alligators during this tour. My aim was so off it was embarrassing!
- Also, if you do participate in the Trainer for a Day program, please tag your photos responsibly when posting on social media.
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